Charity Status No Guarantee of Protection During London Riots

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August 16, 2011; Source: The Guardian | How similar were the London riots of last week to the unrest in South Central Los Angeles in 1992?

Many people in Los Angeles will recall the image of the section of Vermont Avenue where nearly every property was burned or looted or both, except for a shopping center owned by the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation. While fires burned on all sides, this piece of real estate sat untouched, an island of calm amid the damage and devastation that affected some 10,000 other properties in South Central. The explanation was that the rioters knew to skip over this nonprofit community-controlled asset, though some of us also remember the image of Vermont Slauson’s executive director, Marva Smith Battle-Bey, patrolling the site to make sure people knew what the shopping center represented in terms of community-based development.

Did the rioters in London and other British cities treat charitable assets similarly? It is hard to tell, but a piece in The Guardian by the managing director of a “social enterprise” called Fresh Horizons raised the question. Mike McCusker wrote that one of the group’s community centers in the Deighton area of Kirklees was attacked one night by 30 young protesters who smashed through the front doors, overpowered two staff people, and stole the no-fee ATM that Fresh Horizons provided as a free service for local residents. Although the community center survived, Fresh Horizons will not replace the ATM, which saved local residents an estimated £40,000 in ATM fees since it was installed in 2007.

Other British charities also suffered. Several articles mentioned damage to the Age UK “charity shop” on London Road in the Croydon area. Initially, reports were that the windows of the shop were smashed. Elsewhere it was reported that Age UK was “broken into and ransacked,” with damage worth as much as £30,000. Rioters also firebombed two Age UK ambulances costing the charity £45,000.

Also in Croydon, the office that housed Croydon Voluntary Action and a dozen other charities, including Somali Elderly Disabled Carers, was partially destroyed by fire. Other nonprofits, such as a cat rescue center in Enfield, also reported riot damage.

In L.A., maybe it was the community-based, community-controlled ethos of Vermont Slauson combined with Marva Smith Battle-Bey’s formidable presence that was decisive. Yet the stories from the U.K. do not make it sound like rioters were protecting charitable properties. Do any NPQ Newswire readers have a sense of whether British charities were being protected from damage and looting? —Rick Cohen